"If the Ship is Sinking,"

by Paul Anderson, Director, Lutheran Renewal

This article, first printed in the Lutheran Renewal newsletter, Number 191, November 2000, is reprinted here in the Emmaus Walk by permission of Lutheran Renewal, August 2008, and is given here in its entirety. The website for Lutheran Renewal is given below as they requested.

My dad was a pastor in the Lutheran Church for forty-eight years. I'm going on thirty years as a pastor. My roots go deep and far back. I have observed with much grief some distressing signals that make me wonder if the Lutheran ship (SS. ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America]) may be sinking. What are the signs?

It has lost its direction. Without the compass of the Word, the ship is sailing into strange waters, like universalism, for instance (the teaching that all will be saved). "Inclusive" is the opposite of "exclusive," and saying that Jesus is the only way sounds too exclusive to come.

The Gospel is the message of salvation through Jesus Christ by His death on the cross, but that word has been blurred. "Grace" has come to mean doing as you please because God is loving and forgiving and certainly wouldn't judge anyone. "Theological diversity means that anything goes--and it is going fast. The theology of the cross strangely does not focus, as it did for Luther, on the shedding of Christ's blood. It rather sentimentalizes sorrow and makes pain an end in itself. "Spirituality" is whatever turns you on in this "religious community," which isn't a community at all because there's little that people have in common. "The Gospel" is any good news that blows our way. The ship is adrift, tossed by contrary theological waves, and it has no anchor.

When the message becomes relative, methods tend to become absolute, like liturgical accuracy, for example. Technique replaces passion, which is held suspect. It is easier to talk about Romans 7 than Romans 8 on board this boat (the inner conflict rather than conquest through the Holy Spirit), because one needs to avoid any hints at a theology of glory. One of the mandates on the ship is "Thou shalt not commit obedience" (for fear of works righteousness). Justice and peace are in; anything close to glory is out. "Liberating the oppressed" is the new gospel for some crew members. The message has moved for many from a Christ-centered message to a Creator-centered (not Father) and Spirit-centered message, not in the New Testament sense of Spirit but in the sense of the Great Spirit, undefined and inoffensive. Fearing the subject of sanctification, passengers are limited to a meager diet of baby food.

While the ship is going down, the captain is reminding people to "walk wet" (i.e., remember their baptism), which isn't hard on a sinking ship). The new hymn is "My hope is built on nothing less than baptism." It is our eternal security, which keeps many passengers on board from thinking that the ship is going down. Baptism is separated frrom a life of faith because of the fear of human response, thereby reducing faith to fatalism and baptism to a mystery rite. When out of proportion, baptism, a vital New Testament doctrine, becomes as grotesque as a circus mirror.

It has sprung a leak. One can, without embarrasment, speak about saving the whales but not about saving the lost. The lost aren't lost, so don't try to sve them (which may be the reason that more missionaries are coming home than are being sent out). Other cultures are said to have as much going for them as the Christian culture. Imperialism has no place on this ship. What are we--pirates? This theological tolerance is matched by moral permissiveness. We have redefined homosexuality and waffled in regard to protecting the unborn. Though the ship seems to be in serious trouble, the captain and deck hands don't appear alarmed. At least, they are not doing anything to keep the ship from sinking. If anything, they are accelerating it. This is nothing new; the ship has been leaking for forty years, impacting all on board, especially Lutheran colleges and seminaries, most of which have also lost direction. If the ship were a business, it would have filed Chapter Eleven long ago, but it is a non-profit organization, which defines its existence more all the time.

So what will happen in the future? Loyalty to the captain and his officers (those in leaderwhip who serve the same agenda) will continue to diminish. The gap between them and many on board will widen. Vital movements on the ship, and there are still many, will consider the captain's activity increasingly irrelevant. This feeling will alienate the staff toward those who are suspected of disloyalty, and they will be further marginalized, including some evangelicals and charismatics, who use ten-letter words like experience and commitment and whose values are different from many crew members. As things get worse, some officers see danger ahead and become even more controlling, more nervous. Meanwhile, others think the ship is incapable of going under.

If you think the ship is not sinking--pray for those at the helm to change and do what you can to keep the ship afloat. If you fear that the ship is sinking--don't pray for it not to sink; it is probably too late. Pray for a good lifeboat. And see that everyone dear to you is wearing a life-jacket. Don't get swallowed up by a religious system with a political agenda rather than a salvation message. And don't vote to be aligned with another sinking ship. (The S.S. Missouri has also sprung a serious leak, but for the opposite reason. Many of its passengers are in theological straight-jackets).

What should you do to maintain your sanity in the face of potential disaster?

Mind your own business.

Don't tangle with the officers; mutiny is a poor solution. Don't write resolutions on how to keep the ship afloat, it's too late for that. Be like Noah who just did what he was told as an option to getting wet. Build something strong enough to handle the biggest storm. Focus on your primary mission. Care for the people who are under your charge instead of trying to change those who aren't.

Fight if you must, but only if God tells you to. Crusades and causes are not equal with the kingdom, so don't major in fighting, especially if you're the pastor, unless you have plenty of grace to do it. Otherwise, you will turn your whole congregation into fighters. Many of the prophets were fighters, and they needed mega-grace for their difficult task. Draw on the same grace and continually ask, "Is my cause Christ's cause?" And for God's sake, don't be distracted from your primary task, which is usually positive, not negative in nature.

Let go of your expectation to change the system.

It only makes your heart sick, like a deferred hope. People in a bad marriage may hope for years that things will change. Maybe they won't. One option: lower your expectations and be the best mate you can. Changing yourself may be more important than changing your partner. God can always do new things in you. Redirecting your expectations may convert you from a whiner to a winner. And God doesn't waste anything. He uses everything for His purpose, even struggles in a religious system.

Pray like you are part of the problem.

Otherwise, you have no solution. Daniel identified with the problem, and God used him as a voice. Avoid the self-righteousness of Elijah, who wrongfully assumed, "It's just you and me, God."

Prayer is for people who are grievously sad about the ship's condition--but not bitter. Bitter people don't pray; they just complain, and all that does is demoralize those who are going down. If your "thing" is to complain about the ELCA, I have but one bit of advice for lyou--change your outlook. The strongest action people can take toward those who have disenfranchised them is to bless them. And the clearest action moving into an unknown future as we wait for the vision to unfold is to pray. Desperation, as one pastor says, is God's hammer. Divine opportunity stands behind human impossibility.

Be bold, not passive.

Review your own values. Know where you stand and why, so you don't feel condemned when you go against the prevailing current. Hold up the standard of the truth, the unfailing Word of God. Building the ark was a difficult task, one misunderstood by all who watched it happen. Expect criticism, but don't let it diminish your confidence. Pay the price to do whatever God tells lyou to do. Realiz that your very presence is a judgment on those who disagree, as it was with Noah.

Stay positive.

Live in hope, there is plenty to be positive about. Chicago does not equal Church. Christ is building His Church, against which the gates of hell will not prevail. You can have significance. As has been said before, the ark was built by amateurs--the Titanic by professionals. It is easy to get side-tracked and to neglect your vision. The ship was sinking when Jesus came on the scene. He addressed a sick religious system, but only incidentally to His primary vision. He came to die, not to bash the Pharisees. They were terminally ill and would soon leave the picture completely. Jesus didn't back down in confrontation, but neither did He waste His time with them. He didn't even appear to them after He rose in order to prove His point. When His plans intersected their program, Jesus spoke the truth into their lies. But they weren't on center stage--He was. He knew what He was called to do, and He accomplished it. May we do the same--in the spirit of Christ! It is a great day to be alive. Carry, on, Mates!--by Paul Anderson

Lutheran Renewal, For Those Seeking the Empowering Presence of the Holy Spirit

(c) 2008, Butterfly Productions, All Rights Reserved

The Emmaus Walk Home Page

Study Questions for Bible Names Page

Walk in the Light